Interview: Talking Huge with Savannah Dooley
September 7th, 2010
If you’re a regular visitor, you know that I spent much of my summer obsessed with ABC Family’s Huge, a show which really surprised me in its premiere and continued to build throughout the summer. After starting as an interesting glimpse into the experience at a summer camp designed to help teenagers lose weight, over time it became a nuanced take on adolescent self-discovery. Without directly subverting summer camp cliches, the mother-daughter development team of Savannah Dooley and Winnie Holzman elevated their simple structure into the summer’s finest drama series.
[For all of my reviews of Huge’s first season, click here.]
However, since it was more or less just Todd VanDerWerff and I writing about the show, there wasn’t a whole lot of analysis being done, so I felt a certain obligation to do what I could to dig deeper into the series’ subtexts – as a result, after reaching out to the production, I got in contact with Savannah Dooley, who was kind enough to answer some questions via Email about how the series developed, the ways in which the characters evolved over the course of the season, what awaits the show should ABC Family decide to pick up the back half of Season One, and the latest news on the chances of that pickup in the months ahead, all of which can be found after the break.
Q: First off, I wonder if you could shed some more light on the development process for the series.
A: Around four years ago, a family friend, Robin Schiff, was offered the job to write and direct a TV movie based on this book concept. She only wanted to direct, so she suggested me to write it. I was still in college but I had script samples and Robin had always encouraged my writing. We beat out a pitch together for the movie and ABC Family went for it, and we outlined many different versions of the story, then I moved on to the script which also went through several drafts over a couple of years. There were long stretches of time when they weren’t sure what they wanted to do with the project. Then around November of 09 they decided to do it as a summer series. They ordered ten episodes right off the bat, which never happens—usually you do a pilot first and wait to see if they want to order more. Robin Schiff wasn’t available by that time to be the showrunner so they were looking for someone. At that point my mom decided she was interested.
From there things moved really fast. We had to write the pilot and put together a team and start casting by, like, February. The pilot is the episode that takes the most stuff from the movie script, but all the characters got deepened in writing the pilot and plotting out the ten episodes.
On that note, while the series premiere (“Hello, I Must Be Going”) was quite strong, the series really gelled when characters like Trent stepped out from the background in subsequent episodes: was this sort of gradual ensemblification (if you’ll excuse the made up word) something that you were thinking of when writing the pilot, or something which came as a result of realizing the depth of the cast or the need to expand beyond the initial setup?
We always intended the show to have an ensemble feel—from the beginning we had so many ideas for character moments and arcs, but of course you can only do so much in a pilot, it has to grow slowly. I love ensemble shows, something I love about Freaks and Geeks is how even the smallest characters feel like fully realized people.
Specifically, I was really intrigued with Trent’s transformation from the alpha male antagonist (compared with Ian and Alistair) to the most open-minded character on the series – what was it about this character which made him the ideal flagbearer for inclusiveness?
As we were writing “Letters Home,” this idea began to surface of Trent stepping back from his popular jock identity and opening his mind to other possibilities of who he could be. All the campers are primed for transformation over the summer, but Trent is the one who’s most actively searching for an identity. It puts him in a receptive state where he’s questioning other things he thought he knew and allowing in new points of view. When he sees Ian play his song, he realizes this kid who he thought was a loser actually has something he envies: a true passion and a sense of who he is. And he eventually sees the same thing in Alistair when they’re forced together in “Spirit Quest.” It’s always interesting when you see someone start off closed to certain things and then watch them open up.
Continuing on the character note, while Will is the series’ protagonist there is no question that her harsh, anti-establishment perspective made her a slightly unsympathetic character in the early going, before she gradually ingratiated herself to audiences. Was there ever any pressure to soften the character earlier on, or was the slow breakdown of her outer defences the plan from the very beginning?
There was no pressure to soften her, thank goodness. You always hear of studios and networks wanting characters to be more “likeable.” Screw that! The dislikable characters are often my favorites. But of course it’s no fun if you never see another side to them. From the beginning, we knew a massive part of Will’s arc would be about letting down her guard and letting people in emotionally. In a different kind of show this would probably be symbolized by her having a realization that she does want to lose weight after all, as though her convictions were nothing more than another defense, but I guess it’s clear by now we’re not taking that route.
While it was never explicitly discussed, the racial diversity of the series’ cast has created some interesting subtexts: while this likely goes more to Savannah’s original pitch, I’m curious what role this diversity played in charting the characters’ individual and collective journeys.
This is a really interesting question. I have seen some of these subtexts discussed online—for example Chloe’s feeling threatened by Amber’s popularity is read as the white girl coming in with this privilege over the Latina girl… I’ve also seen it noted that Becca goes against a certain kind of sassy ‘n fierce stereotype, it’s less often you see a black girl playing a bookish nerd. None of this was intentional, however, as the roles were all cast colorblind. The exception was Dr. Rand— there we were specifically hoping to cast a woman of color, feeling it would add subtext to the relationship between her and her dad (knowing he’d be white because we wrote it for my dad). We weren’t sure if that hope would come true—it had to be about finding the actor who really fit the part, which proved more difficult than we thought—but then Gina came in and she was that actor.
For us, the characters’ races didn’t play any role in charting their overall arcs– but we do have ideas of exploring some racial issues more overtly should the show return.
On the note of diversity, there was a lot of discussion early in the season regarding the ambiguity of Alistair’s self-identification, including whether he may identify as transgender as opposed to homosexual: did the writers view “Birthdays” as a definitive statement of the latter, or does there remain an ambiguity regarding his identification?
I felt that “Birthdays” left it pretty ambiguous, and it was designed to be. Alistair makes it clear he’s not into labels, although by the end of the episode we understand that his crush is on Trent. I get why that might leave the impression Alistair is gay despite his words “I don’t think of it like that,” because viewers are used to seeing sexuality as fixed, straight or gay, nothing in between.
My own sexuality was never as black and white as the standard narrative (and actually, I could say the same for my gender identity in high school). I’m interested in exploring the gray areas, especially in a teen show where the characters are still figuring out how to label themselves and what they even want. I think it’s important to listen to people’s self identifications rather than label them based on what we see. All I can say is if we come back, we’ll be delving much further into Alistair’s identity, providing insight but also inevitably raising more questions.
Are there any of the peripheral characters who you feel deserved a larger spotlight but didn’t get one to this point? (My vote, clearly, is for Poppy).
We want to go deeper with all the characters, it just takes longer in an ensemble this big. I love what the reaction has been to Poppy. Zoe Jarman brought so much lovable weird earnestness to that part. We have some really interesting stuff in mind for where Poppy could go in the future.
One of the biggest challenges with any multi-generational series with thematically-cohesive episodes is tying adult characters’ storylines in with the younger generation – did you feel that Dorothy’s storylines ultimately felt cohesive with the rest of the series?
I find them cohesive thematically but watching the show as it airs, I’m seeing ways we might find in the future to merge the two generational worlds more and find more connections between them. When Winnie and I write together, she always writes the “grownup” scenes alone– I’ve never felt comfortable taking them on, I guess because I haven’t been at that place in my life yet. Also, Dorothy was essentially her creation and she understands the character on a more intimate level than I can.
I’ll admit to having some serious reservations regarding the George and Amber storyline, which threatened to fall into summer camp cliché more than any other aspects of the series: were these concerns evident in the writing process, or was there confidence that the show would work around, rather than within, the trope?
Yeah, we had that confidence. I wouldn’t want to do a summer camp show without some summer camp clichés, I just think it’s in how they’re executed. We’re more interested in exploring the forbidden nature and ethical issues of the relationship than playing it as a straight up romance. I don’t know if that’s the usual cliché or not; the only example I can think of at the moment is Little Darlings.
Speaking of George, I want to ask briefly about the magic realism of “Spirit Quest.” It seemed that there was an earnestness to the mystical qualities of the story which differed from the more satirical edge to other story structures (“Movie Night, etc.); in this I speak less of Trent and Alistair bonding over their spirit names and more George’s vision of his father’s spirit animal in the woods. What function did you feel that the magical played within that story?
We thought “Spirit Quest” lent itself to people having spiritual experiences, real or imagined. Of course we chose the two most unspiritual characters, Will and George, to have something happen to them. The dog vision can be read as a trick of his mind or divine intervention, depending on your POV, but either way it’s the last thing George expects.
Turning to a more general discussion of the series, the series featured numerous group events which opened the door for large-scale setpieces (Group Therapy, Campfires, etc.), but for the most part these were avoided in favour of smaller scenes featuring a handful of characters (often only two) happening around the periphery. Was this something that was established early on in the writing process, or something which emerged naturally from the season’s trajectory?
This is the style Winnie and I like—quiet, subtext-y scenes rather than large scale public drama which can too easily fall into false territory. We never talked about, “let’s do it this way,” it’s just what we naturally gravitate towards.
While serving largely as satire for the audience, Love Handles and Phantasma were taken seriously by the series’ characters, which allowed the fictional shows to evolve into a really intelligent commentary on how pop culture influences teenage audiences. I’m curious to know more about how these two series were conceived, and what role you feel they played in the season.
We got the idea for Phantasma because we knew we wanted a movie night episode, and we wanted that episode to be all about romance. Spoofing Twilight was irresistible because it’s such a huge cultural touchstone and so ripe for parody, but it also felt perfect because it presents this idealized model of romance (right down to the two leads dating in real life) and we liked the idea of everyone looking at this idealized version while we see their various romantic realities play out.
Love Handles was inspired by the short lived reality show More To Love on Fox which was a plus-size version of The Bachelor. Winnie and I were obsessed with this show and did the parody mostly because the idea cracked us up. We also thought it made an interesting image, the kids watching this exploitative show targeted at their specific niche, this reflection of themselves (or what people with their body type are meant to be) in the media. We weren’t really into making a specific point beyond that, though, we preferred to just let that image sit there.
Considering that you were working with both of your parents, and considering how prominent parental connections were throughout the season, the notion of family resonates heavily in the series – was there ever any thought to showcasing more of this dynamic by either showing the parents in the pilot or having them play a slightly larger role outside of “Parents Weekend?”
We liked the idea of getting to know the kids before we met their families because it would add a new level to what we already understood about the kids. I guess it was about recreating a camp-like experience for the viewer– how you meet people at camp without the context of their lives at home—you only hear about their family through their eyes. Then you meet the family later and certain things about the kid’s personality are suddenly illuminated.
Was there anything which surprised you as the series went on, something you hadn’t expected when the show began? In a show so rife with self-discovery, it seems like some of that would bleed into the writing process.
It’s a unique process because you literally use what you’re learning week-to-week to move forward. As you’re shooting one episode you’re also writing the one that will shoot next week. The actors help create the characters—you see what they bring to it and it becomes stuff you use and build on. You see what their natural personality is like and it merges with the character as written, and sometimes you shift into writing the character a little more to the personality of the actor because it ends up feeling more authentic that way. Piznarski is probably the most intense example of that because he was invented just to be a sidekick for Trent. He was the one we didn’t have an arc for when we started out, so the character grew organically from watching Jacob (Wysocki) and the choices he made.
Were there any discussions about how the series would handle an extended run in terms of returning to Camp Victory and these characters (my mind turns to a show like Friday Night Lights here).
That was one of the first things we discussed. Just to clarify cause I’ve seen a lot of people confused– the point we left off, with “Parents Weekend,” is the midpoint of Season 1, and coming back would continue the campers’ summer. A second season would resume the following summer, with some characters returning as campers and others as CITs or counselors. It’s actually more sustainable as a setting than it seems on first glance, because people return year after year to a camp where they’ve made memories. And there’s an added reason that people return to weight loss camp, because they often regain weight once they’re out of the organized diet and exercise program and back in the “real world.
Things are obviously up in the air, but any insights at all into ABC Family’s future interest in the series?
We haven’t heard a hint about it. I do urge fans to spread the word about the show or even write to the network voicing their support. At this stage in the game, it might make a difference.
[If you’ve read this far without having seen the series, the first six episodes and the season finale are available on Hulu for American viewers.]